- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

As one D.C. democracy advocate noted, “It’s just too many dates to keep up with.” No matter the fund-raising dinners, the community forums and the straw polls, the flurry of activities filling up D.C. voting rights champions’ calendars all lead to the big event — the D.C. presidential primary Jan. 13.

The “beauty contest,” or nonbinding “presidential preference” primary, was purposely designed as a billboard for disenfranchisement, but the struggle to right a woeful wrong just ought not be so hard.

Along with about 100 D.C. sympathizers, yours truly trekked out in the rain last week to the City Museum (the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square) to attend a fund-raising event hosted by D.C. Vote that honored several “Champions of Democracy.”

Jack H. Olender, a civic-minded philanthropist and lawyer, and Phil and Jan Fenty, community activists and owners of Fleet Feet Athletics in Adams Morgan (and the parents of Ward 4 D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty) were honored for their “dedication toward raising awareness about D.C.’s denial of democracy and their commitment to bring equality to the residents of the District of Columbia.”

Yet, it was for Walter E. Washington, the city’s first appointed and first elected mayor, that I went to the City Museum for his unmistakable “dedication to fulfilling the promise of democracy and for the many ways [they] celebrate the rich heritage and vibrant communities of Washington.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Washington (no biological relation but a distinct kinship) was not present. Worse, he is hospitalized, “not well” and cannot receive visitors, according to his wife, Mary Burke Washington. For Mr. Washington to be honored as a Champion of Democracy is unquestionable.

Kevin Kiger, spokesman for D.C. Vote, said Mr. Washington was honored at the refurbished City Museum because he is a “phenomenal historic figure.” Newcomers can look to Mr. Washington’s work and build on it to achieve the elusive goal of self-determination.

“Walter Washington epitomizes a lot of the struggle for democracy [in the District], and he did so much to bring the city where it is today,” Mr. Kiger said.

For his part, Mr. Olender told the crowd it should focus on getting out the vote for the fledgling D.C. primary because it presents an opportunity to raise national awareness that D.C. residents do not have a vote in Congress. D.C. Vote, a nonpartisan education and advocacy group, is one member of a loosely knit coalition of two dozen organizations called “Team D.C. Democracy” determined to bring full voting rights to the capital of the free world.

But “freedom ain’t free,” as longtime D.C. activist Lawrence Guyot frequently states.

They weren’t exactly passing the hat at the D.C. Vote fund-raiser, where D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and former D.C. Council member Hilda “Grandmother” Mason where dancing a mean merengue to the salsa beat of the Latin Jazz All Stars, but guests were bidding freely during the silent auction. Judging from the laundry list of upcoming nonpartisan and party-sponsored “Free D.C.” events, including the Ward 7 and 8 Democrat straw poll vote at Politiki on Saturday billed as a way to raise money for the Democratic caucus next year, the charge to “dig deep” is no joke.

A. Scott Bolden, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, yesterday pointed out that the city has allocated the funds to pay only for the January presidential primary, which includes all nominees including those for the (Statehood) Green Party. D.C. Republicans opted for a later caucus instead of a primary.

To cool a continuing controversy surrounding the national and local Democratic party, the D.C. Council last week made it easier for presidential candidates to have their names placed on the ballot without declaring their intentions and facing repercussions. Amid all the intramural haggling, the Democrats must now raise money to fund two presidential caucuses — one to vote for candidates and allocate the number of delegates in February, the other to pick the allocated delegates for candidates in March.

However, Mr. Bolden hopes that the spotlight will be taken off the Democratic Party rules and focus where it belongs — on the more important principle of full voting rights for the District.

The huge challenge ahead, as Mr. Bolden rightly stated, is to educate, register and get D.C. voters — the overwhelming majority of whom are Democrats — to participate in the cumbersome party voting process three times in three subsequent months.

If D.C. voters become confused or apathetic, the purpose of the primary could backfire. The worst thing to happen for the Last Colony’s residents is a low voter turnout that would send the wrong signal that D.C. residents are not as vested in obtaining full voting rights as their tireless supporters contend they are.

If such a travesty were to occur, it would not only be missed opportunity but also a serious dishonor to the Champions of Democracy like Walter Washington.

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